Once Santa Rosa’s municipal elections of 1908 were over, it came time to make good on the big campaign pledge: To shutter the town’s infamous red light district. The new government was soon to find this was far easier said than done.

Santa Rosa voters that year had to choose between two radically different slates. On one side was a “fusion” ticket created jointly by the Democratic and Republican parties that represented the old guard that had long held a political grip over the town. Running against them was a new grassroots coalition of progressives and prohibitionists, led in part by Luther Burbank. To steal the election, the powers-that-be pulled dirty political tricks; polling places were moved a few days before the election; out-of-towners were allegedly registered as city voters; and on the very morning of election day, it was announced that the fusion candidate for mayor had a trick up his sleeve to transform the blighted tenderloin into Santa Rosa’s first public park. (Election results and final analysis can be found here.)

Prostitution was the bellweather issue for that election because the outgoing City Council had legalized full Nevada-style prostitution the year before, and although the large tenderloin district centered on First and D streets had existed since the 1870s, church groups erupted in outrage. A few months later, Miss Lou Farmer – who actually lived a block away from the red light district – won a suit against the nearest brothel on the judge’s decision that the city ordinance did not explicitly authorize “the occupation of prostitution.”

With that court ruling and the continuing angry winds howling from the pulpits, it was only a matter of time before the law was changed and the red lights were ordered extinguished. And that became yet another cynical trick of the election of 1908; the lame duck City Council, with no member facing voters that year, had the chance to revoke the controversial ordinance – but chose not to. Outlawing prostitution before the election would have undermined the primary campaign plank from the Good Ol’ Boy fusion ticket. “After the voting had been completed,” reported one newspaper, an outgoing councilman remarked, “he would not take from the incoming council the pleasure of repealing the ordinance for anything. This caused a smile to again animate the features of the councilmen and spectators.”

As expected, the fusion candidates swept the election, and the new City Council repealed the prostitution ordinance at their first meeting. Points for courage go to dissenting Councilman Luther Burris, one of two members who had not been up for reelection, and the only member who voted nay. “In his opinion it was a impossible to eradicate the ‘social evil’ and the best thing was to regulate it,” according to the newspaper. Burris was referring to a provision in the now-voided law that was little mentioned; besides licensing the bordellos and their liquor sales, the ordinance had required that the prostitutes submit to regular medical exams for venereal disease.

The Council declared that the brothels would lose their liquor licenses at the end of June, and arrests for illegally selling hootch began just a few days later. Through newspaper items on these arrests we glimpse something of the colorful denizens of the tenderloin; fined $30 was the dramatically-named May Tempest, and the next day, the same fine was given to Kittie Gallagher, alias Kittie Hermann, alias Kittie Hatcher. Then there was Fred Yoder, “a flashy barber [who] practically made his home at one of the houses of prostitution.” Yoder and his consort celebrated with a champagne supper when one of the policemen was relieved from duty, and loudly boasted that night he would see to it that the entire police force would be replaced. After being arrested on vagrancy, Yoder apparently was run out of town – and I’ll wager he left the jail with more than a few fresh scrapes and bruises.

With prostitution again unregulated and unlicensed and a steady income coming from liquor violations, Santa Rosa turned its attention to closing the red light district itself. This plan failed for a variety of reasons (mostly, the lack of any plan whatsoever), but along the way, racism surfaced that was rarely exposed in public. The story of this effort continues in the following essay.

“Boarding Houses” May Still Flourish Here

Councilman Robert L Johnson, chairman of the ordinance committee, introduced a resolution Tuesday evening providing for the repeal of the “boarding house” ordinance of the council, passed about one year ago. The resolution was promptly laid on the table by the vote of four members. Mayor Overton casting the deciding ballot on the question.

The reading of the resolution handed to Clerk Clawson by Councilman Johnston caused many smiles to pass around the council chambers. It came as a distinct surprise and was almost the last thing to be presented to the council.

At the conclusion of the reading, Councilman Burris moved that the resolution be laid on the table. The motion was seconded by Councilman Donahue. Councilman Wallace moved that resolution be adopted and his motion was seconded by Councilman Reynolds. The motion to lay the matter on the table, having been made and seconded first, it was voted on.

Councilman Burris, Donahue and Hall, the first three members to vote, cast their votes in the affirmative, to lay the resolution on the table. Councilman Johnston, Reynolds and Wallace voted against the tabling of the resolution and this passed the matter up to Mayor Overton. The latter voted “aye” on the proposition.

After the voting had been completed, Councilman Hall remarked that he would not take from the incoming council the pleasure of repealing the ordinance for anything. This caused a smile to again animate the features of the councilmen and spectators.

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 4, 1908
Action Taken by the New City Council Last Night

True to the obligation of the platforms of the Democratic and Republican conventions, which stood for the repeal of the “boarding house resolution” licensing the sale of liquor in the red light district, the above resolution was introduced at the first meeting of the new city council last night by Councilman Fred Forgett and was passed. On June 30 the license for the current quarter will expire.

After Councilman Forgett had offered though rescinding motion Councilman L. W. Burris mentioned that the resolution had been passed by the former council after much deliberation and investigation of existing conditions, believing that it was the best way to handle the matter. In his opinion it was a impossible to eradicate the “social evil” and the best thing was to regulate it. He instanced the old custom of arresting and fining the landladies and urged that the requirements of the “boarding house resolution” were far ahead of such a course. If Mr. Forgett or anyone else had a better solution the problem to offer then he was willing to vote for a rescinding of the resolution. If not then he would not vote for it. He went fully into the situation as it presented itself to him.

Councilman Forgett said his reason for offering his motion was because both the platforms of the Democratic and Republican parties upon which he and the other councilmen had been elected were pledged to repeal the license as many people were opposed to it. He said he desired to do what the people wanted.

After a little more discussion the question was called for and when City Clerk Clawson called the roll the resolution stood: For repealing–Councilman Forgett, Johnston, Barham, Bronson and Steiner. Against–Councilman Burris.

Councilman Forgett said the future handling of the matter was a problem that the mayor and council would have to deal with.

– Press Democrat, April 22, 1908

The licenses for the sale of intoxicating liquor in the redlight district expired at midnight Tuesday night and they will not be renewed. The people in that locality have been notified that on their premises they cannot sell or give away liquor. They also have been notified that they must vacate that part of the city by August 1. Chief of police Rushmore states that the ordinance will be strictly enforced.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 1, 1908


Two women of the redlight district were arrested by Officer I. N. Lindley a few days ago and the same are held to appear before Judge Bagley Wednesday for violation of the city ordinances. The order for stopping the dispensing of the liquor in that district went into effect on July 1st.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 6, 1908

May Tempest, a woman of the redlight section, who was arrested by Policeman John Boyes, charged with selling liquor without a license entered a plea of guilty before City Recorder Bagley yesterday evening and was fined $30. She was informed that a second offense meant a fine of $150, and was told to notify all the women of the street that it was the intention to strictly enforce the laws regarding the sale of liquor in that district.

– Press Democrat, August 19, 1908
Officers Determined to Have Law Enforced

The police officers of this city are determined that they will break up the practice of women of the tenderloin of selling liquor without a license. Wednesday May Tempest was find $30 for the offense, but other landladies of that section of the city do not seem to have profited by the experience of this woman.

Last night officer boys caught Kittie Gallagher, alias Kittie Hermann, alias Kittie Hatcher, selling liquor. He promptly filed a complaint against her and $30 bail money was deposited with Recorder William P. Bagley to insure that much surnamed Kittie’s appearance when she is wanted.

In police circles, where the evidence against Kittie is best known, it is not believed she will appear for trial, but will forfeit the bail. The trial is set for Friday afternoon.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 20, 1908

Officer John Boyes caught Kitty Gallagher of No. 1 D street selling liquor at an early hour Thursday morning. A complaint was filed against the woman and she put up $30 cash bail in the afternoon with City Recorder Bagley. She announced that she will not appear for trial at 2 o’clock Friday, and the bill will be forfeited. This is the fourth case from the neighborhood, and all have paid similar fines.

– Press Democrat, August 21, 1908
Flashy Barber Changes His Plea to Charge

Fred Yoder, a flashy barber, has left town. Before leaving he was arrested on a charge of vagrancy by Officer Lindley, the specific charges against him being that he practically made his home at one of the houses of prostitution. This he indignantly denied when taken before Justice A. J. Atchinson. Later, through his attorney, he changed his original plea of not guilty to one of guilty.

Yoder and the woman with whom he consorted celebrated the departure of Officer Ed Skaggs with a champagne supper the night the officer was relieved from duty. They did not like the strict enforcement of the law which Officer Skaggs compelled in the district, and his removal was gladsome news to the denizens and habitues of that section. No better evidence could be obtained that the officer was doing his duty than the fact that he was unpopular there.

Following the champagne supper in the tenderloin, Yoder and the woman went about town the same night bragging that one of the “bulls” had lost his job. Yoder loudly proclaimed that he would see that the other policemen lost their positions also and that he would secure an entirely new force in Santa Rosa before he ceased his activities.

Justice Atchinson find Yoder $25 of the bail bond he put up to secure his liberty after his arrest.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 5, 1908

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The 1908 Santa Rosa election was actually a referendum: Should the town join the 20th century? The voters said no.

By a 17 point margin in the race for mayor and a gap more than 2x in some city council contests, voters elected a slate that represented the status quo – the “Good Ol’ Boys” who had long controlled the town. Such a sweeping victory is even more remarkable considering there was a record-breaking turnout of voters largely because the previous G.O.B. administration had spurred outrage by legalizing Nevada-style prostitution in Santa Rosa. (This is the sixth and final part of this series. For background, view the previous article or see the full index.)

Regardless of which side you wanted to win, election night was an evening that makes one yearn for a time machine. “The crowds in Newspaper Row on Fifth street in the evening were immense,” reported the PD. “From half past seven o’clock until the last returns had been thrown on the canvass outside the Press Democrat office, thousands of people blocked the streets watching the stereopticon [a ‘magic lantern’ projector].” When the final results were announced, a large bonfire was ignited and the flag-waving crowd, led by a brass band, paraded up Mendocino Ave. to College Avenue, where they rallied at the home of the mayor-elect James Gray.

Victory rally hoopla aside, it was actually a tragic night for Santa Rosa. As the wave of the reform movement continued to sweep out corruption in San Francisco and other American cities, the new mayor made certain the status quo did not change here. The “boarding house” ordinance was quickly repealed as promised (at the very first session of the new City Council), but that only dropped the license fee and the requirement that the prostitutes be examined for sexual disease. The bordellos stayed in business, as revealed in this followup posting.

So who were the Good Ol’ Boys? During the campaign, the leader of the ad-hoc “Municipal League” party named four men he claimed were the “bosses” of Santa Rosa. Whether the accusation was truthful or no, they weren’t kingpins in the sense of Boss Tweed or San Francisco’s Abe Ruef; for one thing, the four were equally divided between Republican and Democratic allegiances. The town certainly had a political machine, however, and that was shown by the Dems and Repubs making a backroom deal to present a “fusion” ticket. The local party leaders might bicker when it came to state and national candidates and issues, but they stood together when it came to blocking anyone from cracking down on Santa Rosa’s vice-driven underground economy.

In a nutshell, the Good Ol’ Boys were the men who profited and/or participated in the local underground economy, primarily prostitution and illegal gambling. It appears they mostly still had the dust of the Wild West in their thinning hair and a swaggering, I’ll-do-anything-I-please attitude; to them, it was acceptable for downtown Santa Rosa to become a lawless place after dark because it brought in lots of money, damned be the harm done. This is how the town had functioned since the 1880s or 1870s. By contrast, the Municipal League crowd wanted Santa Rosa to blossom as a middle class, mercantile community, where women could be out in the evenings without risk of being assaulted or mistaken for a prostitute.

A little peek inside the Good Ol’ Boy network inadvertently appeared in a Press Democrat editorial, revealing that two of the First street buildings being used as bordellos were owned by Cornelius Shea and Dr. Summerfield. These men, along with an adjacent property owner, Daniel Behmer, were considered upstanding business men in Santa Rosa. Con Shea owned much of the prime real estate downtown, most famously the “Shea Block” (the entire south side of Fourth st. between B and A streets, now the heart of the mall) and was VP and a director of the Savings Bank of Santa Rosa. Dr. J. J. Summerfield was a well-known veterinarian. These were not absentee slumlords or pimps running a prostitution empire; they were just local investors whose portfolios included whorehouses. The cynical Old Guard could make the case that Behmer was little different from any commercial real estate developer willing to “build to suit” when he had the structure at 720 First st. constructed to suit his tenant’s unique needs.

Santa Rosa was also packed with saloons, with never fewer than 30-40 downtown during that era, except for a blip after the great earthquake. Although the prohibitionist faction in the Municipal League wanted to lock their doors forever, anti-corruption reformers probably wanted city police to simply enforce the laws against illegal gambling inside them.* A 1905 exposé in the Santa Rosa Republican quoted the Chief of Police as saying he couldn’t make arrests because the City Council “will not back me up.” The betting activity historically peaked during the August horse races and was centered at the Oberon Saloon, which was located in another building owned by Con Shea.

Whether the reformers would have followed through and cleaned up the town is impossible to know, but the Good Ol’ Boys had reason to fear that the Municipal League would have more bite than bark if it won the election. Their candidate for mayor was Rolfe Thompson, a former DA who just months before had successfully sued Daniel Behmer for damages accounting to his owning property used for prostitution. If Thompson became the new mayor, he might well have ordered the District Attorney to file suit against Shea, Summerfield, and whoever owned the six other bawdy houses in Santa Rosa. A Municipal League City Council could have told the police chief that yes, you should enforce the gaming laws. There was much at stake, and their win could have been the end of the Good Ol’ Boys’ smalltown empire of crime.

There are a couple of interesting footnotes to the Santa Rosa election of 1908. It was the first local election where women played a significant political role (it would be four more years before women gained the right to vote in California). “The women took an active interest in the election, and they ‘button-holed’ the sterner sex on every hand and questioned them regarding their intentions when it came to using the little rubber stamp,” the Press Democrat reported. (Unfortunately, not enough men listened to them.) In Healdsburg, where the town had voted a day earlier on whether it would go “dry,” women lobbied for prohibition and constructed a booth where they offered a free lunch.

It was also the occasion when Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley finally jumped the shark and lost any pretense of journalistic objectivity, even by the feeble standards of the day. Finley – who was among the election night supporters of Gray speaking to the crowd from the mayor-elect’s front porch – relentlessly attacked Thompson and the Municipal League for bringing attention to Santa Rosa’s corruption to outsiders, thereby harming the town’s stellar reputation. In Finleyland, these were “…unjust and uncalled-for attacks upon some of the best-known people of the community… Santa Rosa will not be apt to recover from the effects for a long time to come.” He kept spitting at the walloped reformers even after the election, until the Santa Rosa Republican told him to stop being such a sore winner and shut up. “The Press Democrat man is a great fighter,” a Republican editorial began. “His dander is up. He is going to show the world that he is ‘real devilish’ when aroused. The combatants in the struggle just ended have disbanded and gone home. The Press Democrat man hasn’t. He never, never will lay down his arms. He is the late battlefield all alone.”

*It should be noted that we don’t really know the Municipal League’s exact position on gambling, prostitution, saloons, or anything else. No campaign literature survives, and the only known copies of the sympathetic prohibitionist’s newsletter, “The Citizen,” are from a year or more later. In one article reproduced below, the writer bemoans there was prize fighting (illegal under state law, although boxing was allowed) and “slot machines are going merrily in the saloons.” Much of what is known about the Municipal League campaign comes from rebuttals that appeared in Press Democrat editorials.



The fight concluded and all danger being past, the editor of the Evening Republican crawls from his hiding place in the brush, fans the dust off his knees, and rushes bravely to the front. Waiving his rustless sword on high, he cries:

“Stop, talking and bury the hatchet!”

There is no disposition upon his the part of anybody that we know of to continue the fight, but the resentment that has been aroused by the so-called Municipal League and which found expression at the ratification meeting in front of Mr. Gray’s residence Tuesday evening, is but natural. Under ordinary circumstances, and where the fight is fair, the disposition of the victors is usually magnanimous. But the flight as conducted by the organization mentioned was not a fair fight. The foulest of tactics were employed. False issues, and issues known to be false, were raised whenever and wherever it was thought they would secure a vote. Personalities were indulged in to an extent never before heard of in a campaign here, municipal or otherwise. Honest men, some of the very best in Santa Rosa–men who had freely devoted their time to the public service, and who were entitled to the heartfelt thanks of the entire community for services faithfully and intelligently performed, were assailed without cause and for no good reason were abused and vilified upon every possible occasion like a gang of pickpockets.

Of course such work was resented. It ought to be resented. People have and should have no right to imagine that they can do such things and then escape all responsibility by merely shouting “the gong has sounded.”

Santa Rosa now faces two years of strenuous endeavor. Time are none too good, and it is going to require some hard work and some keen manipulation to keep all the wheels turning. But it can be done, and we believe it will be done. All public-spirited citizens owe it to the community as well as to themselves to get behind the new administration and help accomplish these results. If, when the two years are passed, the results have not proved satisfactory, those who take that view of the matter will have a perfect right to say so.

But they should learn by the developments of the past few days that the public will expect them to be fair in their criticisms. and not unmindful of what is reasonable and what is just.

– Press Democrat editorial, April 9, 1908



The Press Democrat man is a great fighter. His dander is up. He is going to show the world that he is “real devilish” when aroused. The combatants in the struggle just ended have disbanded and gone home. The Press Democrat man hasn’t. He never, never will lay down his arms. He is the late battlefield all alone, and is making the fight of his life. When the silence of this scene threatens to overcome him, he whoops real loud and that keeps him from getting too scared to run away. This is the first time it in the martial annals of the world that a battle was going on after the fighting was all over. Sad indeed would have been the dying of the vanquished had they known in that last hour that the valiant Press Democrat man was going to make “rough-house” at their funeral. But he is a great fighter.

– Santa Rosa Republican editorial, April 9, 1908



Practically the entire issue of the current number of The Citizen, the official organ of the Santa Rosa Ministerial Union, is devoted to lambasting the Press Democrat and putting forth a thinly-veiled appeal to the church people to withdraw their support and patronage from this paper.

And why?

Has the Press Democrat ever shown itself unfriendly to the church or its institutions? Have we ever arrayed ourselves against the project undertaken by religious organizations of the city for the furtherance of the advancement of their legitimate work? Have we ever failed to accord church news proper space or attention in our local columns? Have we ever, at any time or under any circumstances, directed one word of criticism towards any true man of God laboring along broad-minded lines within his proper sphere?

Of course not, and every reader of this paper knows it.

But the Press Democrat, always resentful of anything that savored of class government and forever opposed to the interference of church and state, in the recent municipal campaign stood up and vigorously fought the attempt of the Santa Rosa Ministerial Union, acting by proxy and parading in fancied disguise to secure control of public affairs here. We would have opposed such an attempt upon the part of the saloon interests just as quickly–for the representatives of any other special interest or class for that matter–for no special class of people, acting and operating as such, have the right to aspire to control in this country. Individuals have the right to aspire to anything they choose, but classes have no such rights. If they were allowed to think so, we should soon have class government, which is something no sensible man can approve and something entirely opposed to the principles on which our nation is founded.

The Ministerial Union is pouring the vials of its wrath upon the Press Democrat because we opposed that organization in the last campaign and for no other reason.

And what is this so-called in Santa Rosa Ministerial Union, which in its “official organ” thus comes out and openly advocates that the Press Democrat be boycotted for standing by its principles in the recent municipal campaign? Is the organization one that is truly representative of the local ministry? Do all the ministers of the city endorse the policies of the so-called Ministerial Union? Do even the majority of them favor “the preacher in politics” or stand for the cowardly and un-American boycott, about which its own campaign paper was having so much to say only a few weeks since?


Three of the ministers actively engaged in pastoral work here takes no part in the political activities of the Santa Rosa Ministerial Union, and two of the remaining six or known to have little real sympathy with such methods. This is four men who really constitute the organization and direct its policies. These four men directed the recent Municipal League campaign and wrote most of the articles that appeared in the League paper. One of them acted as editor-in-chief, and had the final decision regarding the availability of all articles submitted for publication.

And these same four men are the ones who now ask the people of Santa Rosa to withdraw their support and patronage from the Press Democrat because this paper happens to have enough backbone to stand up and say what it thinks, regardless of whose toes may be temporarily trampled upon.

The public have not forgotten the kind of arguments that were put out by the Municipal League paper during the campaign just closed, or the thousand-and-one absurd accusations that were made against everything and everybody connected with the other side. Never were charges hurled about with such reckless prodigality. None of them were based upon fact. Long before the campaign was ended they had all been disproved, and not one of the terrible things that were going to happen in the event of Mr. Gray’s election have materialized.

And it is the same men who are responsible for the campaign conducted by the so-called Municipal League who are now throwing bricks at the Press Democrat, and asking people to believe that we stand for all kinds of outrageous ideas and practices.

Along with a lot of other things, the Ministerial Union in its official organ charges for the Press Democrat has “misrepresented and vilified the churches and ministers, and has consistently stood for prostitution, gambling, the Sunday saloon and the obscene story.” Of course none of these charges are true, and our readers know it. The Press Democrat is just as anxious as the members on the Ministerial Union or anybody else to see affairs here conducted properly, and to maintain and elevate the moral tone of the community. While we may not agree with certain members of the organization referred to regarding the best way of accomplishing the results desired, to contend that this paper stands for anything but what is best for all concerned is ridiculous as well as absurd. We challenge a comparison of the class of matter contained in these columns with either those of “Verity,” “The Citizen,” or “The Municipal League,” and defy any human being to show where we ever stood in all our newspaper experience “stood” for topics as questionable or stories anything like as suggestive as those discussed and told day after day and night after night after night by the Evangelist Bulgin at his big test on Fourth Street.

The Santa Rosa Ministerial Union has now been in existence for several years. in all good faith and with courtesy you should like to enquire of the gentlemen making up that body if they really think anything has been gained for the cause by the policy that has been pursued since the organization . As we view the matter, valuable support has been alienated that might just as well have been retained, strong antagonisms have been aroused where friendships might have been formed, and strife and ill-feeling has been engendered when only harmony, peace and good-will should prevail.

Why not try different tactics for a while?

– Press Democrat editorial, May 3, 1908


The city council is allowing the denizens of the “red light district” district to go on violating the law by selling liquor without a license. It is commonly reported that there are nine government licenses taken out in that district. That ought to be enough evidence. Nothing else should be needed. Talk about enforcing the law. We have a weak set of men on the council of this city. They hang their head pans supinely in the presence of a few “sporting women” and say, “we are powerless.” It is about time we had somebody in office whose backbone is not composed of shoestrings. An order was issued that the women must leave that district last August. Nothing was done about it.

We thought that Mr. Gray was to do great things if elected. He would show the Santa Rosa people how to do things. The saloon organ of this city on the 18th of March last year said, “And that there is also another reason, which is that James H. Gray is a better man for mayor of Santa Rosa than Rolfe L. Thompson could ever think of being.” We are willing to leave it to any fair-minded man who knows Mr. Thompson as to whether Mr. Thompson would have been as as inefficient in the office of mayor as Mr. Gray has been. We would like to ask with all due respect for Mr. Gray, what has been done while in office? He was going to clean up the notorious “red light district.” He has not done anything in that line. The town is going on in the same old way.

It is practically a wide-open town today. The saloons are running full blast 18 hours out of 24. We have lately had added to our list of booze resorts another, making a total of 40. Liquor is sold in the “red light district.” Prize fighting is allowed in town. Slot machines are going merrily in the saloons. Yes, there is one thing which we are glad to see the council has ostensibly stopped (we do not know whether the laws enforced or not), and that is, gambling in the rear of cigar stores. We want to give all due praise, but when we come to sum up the administration under the present mayor, who came to this office with the highest praise of the saloon organ, we find that it has been about as spineless as any thing could well be and have any existence at all.

The puzzle that was printed in The Municipal League, showing Mr. Gray in minute minutes type between Grace and Geary, had more truth than poetry in it. Where will you find the mayor today? “The only answer is the echo of our wailing cry.”

– The Citizen, April, 1909

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Politics 101: No matter how big the screwup, never apologize. Blame others, change the subject or as a last resort, beg forgiveness (still without explicitly admitting any mistakes, of course). Such was probably how the world worked in Babylon, 4,000 years back; it certainly was the rule in Santa Rosa, 1908.

Another way to sidestep apologizing is not running for re-election, and every single incumbent city official decided that 1908 was a swell year to retire from public service. Left to not-apologize were party stalwarts, who faced an electorate irate over the City Council’s decision the previous year to legalize prostitution in Santa Rosa without public notice or hearing. The “Good Ol’ Boys” who had long controlled the town were at risk of an election upset to an ad-hoc party of reformers, so the Democratic and Republican parties joined forces to offer a “fusion” ticket against the slate of do-gooders. Leading the “Municipal League” party was Rolfe Thompson, a popular former DA who had recently won a lawsuit against prostitutes and their landlord..

Although the Dems and Repubs were offering the exact same candidates and their party platforms were identical in calling for a prompt repeal of the prostitution ordinance, the Democratic plank on this issue pleaded for the voter to understand they meant well, honest: “We earnestly recommend and favor the immediate repeal of the so-called boarding-house license, but do not impugn or question but that sincere and honest motives prompted and moved the framers thereof in legislating upon a difficult social problem.”

At a big Democratic rally, District Attorney Clarence Lea was even more defensive, according to reporting in the April 5 Press Democrat:

I have been charged with failure to eradicate prostitution in the city. I can’t eradicate prostitution. No one else can. You know it. I know it. The Municipal League knows it. You can’t eradicate prostitution until some power changes man’s passions to purity. Heney of San Francisco, Foulke of Missouri, Deenan of Illinois and Jerome of New York have not been able to do it.

There were other District Attorneys before me. They were not able to eradicate it. My predecessor in office. Mr. Thompson didn’t do it. I don’t remember his making any effort to do it. I prosecuted two cases and did as well as I knew how. No honest man who was present will say but that I did my best, although there are men going about the streets of Santa Rosa saying I didn’t. Any man who says I did not do my best to convict that woman is a common, ordinary liar. I can make anything else out of it.

Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley took a novel route: There was nothing to apologize for because nothing really had changed:

The tenderloin district has existed in its present locality for 30 years and has never been regulated before, save by the power of some policeman’s club. Except that due authority is now provided for exercising supervision and control, conditions have not been changed in the least. The boarding houses resolution licenses the sale of liquor, and that is all.

But as with most of Finley’s editorials during the 1908 campaign, he wasn’t telling the truth. The ordinance did far more than just licensing booze; it licensed the bordellos themselves as legitimate businesses and established requirements that the names of the prostitutes be recorded and they be examined by a medical doctor every two weeks for sexual diseases. In short, Santa Rosa’s City Council had legalized full Nevada-style prostitution.

Voter anger over the prostitution ordinance was clearly the #1 issue in that city election, and blame shifting, evasions, and (non) apologies only go so far to mollify; to be assured of winning, the Good Ol’ Boys needed to spring an “October surprise.” On the very day of the election, the PD announced that fusion candidate for mayor James Gray had obtained options “on most of the property in that part of town and has a plan under way which if successful will not only remove the tenderloin district entirely outside the city limits but will result in beautifying all that portion of the city and transforming it into a public park.” As the Press Democrat was a morning paper, the news would have reached voters just before they went to the polls, and there was no time for the other side to respond.

Simultaneously wiping out the red light district and giving Santa Rosa its first park would have been a neat hat trick indeed, and without giving too much away about what would happen after this election, I’ll say only that none of it came to pass. But I’m pretty certain that this was the sleaziest of all the dirty tricks played by the Old Guard. Here’s why:

At least since the 1870s, Santa Rosa’s tenderloin district was on First street, primarily between D and E streets (thanks to Mr. Finley for revealing the age in an editorial aside). The south side of First st. backed on to Santa Rosa Creek; not much was ever built on that side, and this bank of the Creek was a natural location for a water park, as first proposed a couple of years before.

Gray’s proposed urban renewal efforts specifically mentioned four properties were optioned. Two of them – the Santa Rosa Milling Co. and the Behmer house (the location of the infamous brothel) – we know were on the creek side of the street, so it’s safe to assume that the other two lots were adjacent as well, as there were exactly four properties on that side (see 1908 map to right, with this area circled in blue). On the map, the houses of prostitution are colored in red. Thus Gray’s plan would have removed only three out of nine known bordellos – and those were the smallest houses, at that.

“While Mr. Thompson has been talking, Mr. Gray has been doing,” Ernest Finley boasted in that election day editorial. Yes, that’s true; too bad the PD hadn’t published the news a few days/weeks/months earlier, so voters could have known that what Mr. Gray was doing was to propose building the town’s only park adjacent to a consolidated and re-criminalized tenderloin district.

Coverage of the election results and some of the aftermath follow in this series’ final post.


The meeting held last night under the auspices of the so-called Municipal League was well attended but it did not make any votes. In fact, after the meeting many express themselves as being of the opinion that instead of making votes it lost them. The arguments failed to convince, only a few of the “issues” that have been raised by the League’s paper were referred to at all, and Mr. Thompson, who was the last speaker, found himself unable to hold the audience, hastily bringing his remarks to a close before he had concluded what he had to say, when he noticed what he took to be the beginning of a general exodus from the back of the hall.

The campaign is of course now over, and the only thing up on the which the League has not fallen down completely in its position in reference to the social evil. Several of the speakers referred to the matter and it is apparent that this is the only thing left to their fight. But even this has gone by the board, and the men who are inclined to support the League ticket upon this ground will be making a sad mistake in voting for Mr. Thompson for they will be far more apt to get the results desired if Mr. Gray is elected than if the League candidate is placed in the chair.

Although little has been said about it Mr. Gray has quietly secured options on most of the property in that part of town and has a plan under way which if successful will not only remove the tenderloin district entirely outside the city limits but will result in beautifying all that portion of the city and transforming it into a public park. Some of these options were secured several months ago, and they are now on file in the Chamber of Commerce. The properties bonded include that of the Santa Rosa Milling and Construction Company, Daniel Behmer, Cornelius Shea, Dr. J. J. Summerfield and others. The idea of transforming that part of the city into a public park is not a new one, but this is the first time anything like a systematic attempt has been made to carry the idea into effect. While Mr. Thompson has been talking, Mr. Gray has been doing. And so even the last remaining issue of the ill-starred and ill-advised Municipal League (so-called) falls to the ground.

One would have to go a long way and search deep to find a political movement that has been so badly mismanaged and so absurdly handled as the “campaign” that has just been concluded here by the so-called Municipal league. Fathered by men who are in almost absolute ignorance of existing conditions, the long list of false issues were raised, only to be battered down one by the mere publication of a few facts. The falsity of the charges advanced has been in most instances publicly admitted by the League candidates and speakers. At last night’s meeting, ex-Mayor Sweet paid a far higher tribute to the outgoing administration than any we have published, and from the stand at the Germania hall meeting Professor McMeans verified all we have said regarding the much-discussed boarding house resolution. Nobody now believes the defamatory charges that have been made regarding the city’s moral atmosphere–that is nobody here. The story sent out and published far and wide may have of course found some credence, and it is practically impossible to offset their effect. We will live them down in time, but it will in all probability take years to convince the outside world that Santa Rosa is not as black and she has been painted.


“The Municipal League” in its issue yesterday mentioned as truth an instance in which women had gone into a yard on Second street and when asked to refrain from picking flowers, had replied, “that they would not stop as they were licensed to do as they pleased in this town,” adding: “Wait until after the election and we’ll show you what an open town is.”

A lady, whose home is on Second street, recalled an incident similar to that referred to yesterday in “The Municipal League,” and which undoubtedly was the one mentioned. She said that aside from the fact that the women were picking flowers the other part of the story reported was made out of whole cloth.

– Press Democrat, April 7, 1908

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